Tod Machover: Technology and the Future of New Music

9. Opera


Valis -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [75 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TOD MACHOVER: “Fat’s Sacrament” from Valis (1987)
Patrick Mason – baritone
Emma Stephenson – keyboards
Daniel Ciampolini – percussion
Tod Machover – conductor
{Bridge BCD 9007; distributed by Koch International}
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FRANK J. OTERI: So for the loaded question, we’ve talked about these things that blur the roles between composer, performer, and audience. You’re a composer. You write works for performers that are then heard by audiences. In fact, you write operas. And there’s a very clear delineation between: you, the composer; the performers who perform it, who sing in it; and the audience who hears it. An opera is an old-fashioned musical format. Why opera?

TOD MACHOVER: Well, okay, I think there are two sides to that answer. One is that, at least for myself, I guess one of my goals for the rest of my career is to find a perfect form that combines all of the different things I’m interested in and all of the different relationships between performers and composer and public, but so far I approach different projects in different ways. There are different things that I’m interested in, which aren’t necessarily collapsible into one form, and I’ve always been perversely attracted to finding, or establishing, unity between musical materials and forms of expression that seem very divergent. Just as before we discussed that there are different ways of defining an instrument of the future, depending on who’s going to play it and what they’re going to use it for, I think the same is true of different kinds of pieces that I like to work on and different ways that you want people to listen to them. In the past three years, I composed a Brain Opera, and I also composed the opera Resurrection for the Houston Grand Opera, and they are about as different as two works can be, although in my view they are both “opera” and they are definitely both “my music.”… Brain Opera is an extreme case in trying to make something where the public gets to help shape it, manipulate it. I gave away more control than I usually do in that project. Resurrection is probably the most traditional piece I’ve composed in a long time, with a story based on Tolstoy’s last novel, and a lyrical, dramatic score. As you say it’s designed for people to listen to and to follow. Hopefully, they’re not going to move around; they’re going to sit in their seats from the beginning to the end, following the music and the story.

FRANK J. OTERI: And a score.

TOD MACHOVER: And a score. You know, it’s for solo singers (the first time I’ve used an entire cast of opera-trained singers), orchestra and chorus. It does have a large electronic part, but one of my goals for Resurrection was to make the technology sophisticated enough that people wouldn’t notice it, that it would add to the texture, add to the impact, add to the whole effect of the opera but wouldn’t draw attention to itself. Partly, I didn’t want people to go away from Resurrection talking first about the technology and third about the music. And also I wanted the whole sound world — I mentioned it before — to be a new kind of blend between acoustic and electric; I didn’t want it to end up sounding “electronic”… This is still very hard to achieve, but is one of the main directions I’m moving in… Just today there was yet another article — today it was in the New York Times — about the use of amplification in orchestral and operatic settings. It’s interesting: Ever since City Opera announced that it’s going to experiment with amplification…

FRANK J. OTERI: The critics are all horror struck about this.

TOD MACHOVER: Not only that, but now it’s like. . . I don’t know if you saw Tommasini’s article today, but it turns out that there are about 20 different opera houses around the country who’ve already put in amplification systems. It’s like a dirty little secret. It’s all coming up now how many people have experimented with amplification or enhancement, whatever you call it. I keep coming back to opera because I think that one of the things that ties together all of my work is a desire to create music that is about human issues that I consider significant. Not as ideas; I mean I’m in music because it is the way that I’m most skilled at expressing things about being alive and what it all means. I’ve always felt that I’m not in music to make music about other music, or that comments on musical language or musical colleagues. I think as much as I can about musical form and musical language, of course, but I do that in service of the final expression. And finally the same with technology. I’m incredibly interested in building and making new technology, but at the end of the day it’s all so that it can get me closer to what I want to express and communicate. And for me, the most complete and satisfying way to do this is through opera in all of its different forms, including wacky forms like Brain Opera that I try to make up from scratch. I love the idea of music which also has some thematic concern. I don’t want to say “story,” because Brain Opera didn’t have a story. It doesn’t have to have a story. I like combining the abstract and emotional qualities of music with something that grounds the experience in a specific context. I like to find a balance between not having things be so programmatic that they become simplistic, but not so open that you don’t have any idea what the issues are. And opera is a wonderful way to explore many different ways of doing that. The great thing about opera is that, unlike film, the musical experience should be at the center of it. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved spinning melodies; I do that all the time now with my two young daughters.

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